The annual battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe between Wisconsin and Minnesota will be renewed once again Saturday in Minneapolis. And for the first time in years, there is genuine intrigue as to which team might walk away with the 6-foot handle that symbolizes the century-old rivalry.
Minnesota (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) ranks No. 25 in the latest BCS standings and has put together its best season since 2003 — also the last time the Gophers beat the Badgers. BCS No. 19 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) has won five consecutive games and is on the cusp of reaching a fourth straight BCS bowl game — provided it can win its final two regular-season games and sneak into the BCS top 14.
So, which team has the advantage this year?
FOX Sports Wisconsin Badgers writer Jesse Temple and FOX Sports North Gophers writer Tyler Mason cover these teams every day and offer their take in a five-question point-counterpoint.
1. Which team comes in more tested?
TEMPLE: Wisconsin. The Badgers have played two teams ranked in the top 17 in the latest BCS standings — No. 3 Ohio State and No. 17 Arizona State. And both of those games came on the road. Sure, Wisconsin didn’t win either of those games. But the Badgers were certainly in both until the end and should have earned the chance to kick the potential game-winning field goal against the Sun Devils in that controversial finish.
Minnesota played at Northwestern and at Michigan, and those were nice tests. The Gophers’ nonconference season, however, was terrible. Minnesota’s four nonconference opponents are a combined 15-28. Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule included two early season patsies, but the Badgers didn’t do themselves any favors by playing a BYU team that has beaten bowl-bound teams in Texas, Georgia Tech, Houston and Boise State. Wisconsin won that game and has faced every kind of offense out there, from up-tempo to the run-heavy style it will see against Minnesota.
MASON: Wisconsin. Minnesota’s nonconference schedule was nothing to write home about, while the Badgers faced Arizona State (currently No. 19 in AP Top 25, No. 17 in the BCS) on the road and hosted a solid BYU team. None of the Gophers’ four nonconference opponents currently have winning records (and New Mexico State is 1-9). Minnesota and Wisconsin have three common opponents: Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern. The Gophers lost to the Hawkeyes and beat the Wildcats and Hoosiers on the road by three points each, while the Badgers beat Iowa 28-9 on the road, Northwestern by a 35-6 final one week before the Wildcats played Minnesota and routed the Hoosiers last weekend, 51-3. The Badgers were also tested on the road against No. 4 Ohio State and nearly handed the Buckeyes their only loss but fell 31-24. Minnesota’s schedule hasn’t necessarily been a cakewalk, but the Gophers haven’t had as tough of a road to 8-2 as the Badgers.
2. What weakness of the team you cover could you see being exploited?
TEMPLE: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday that Wisconsin’s offense, defense and special teams had “no weakness.” Maybe he’s just trying to play the underdog card, but you don’t often hear a coach say that about the opposing team. To be honest, I’m not sure where Minnesota has an advantage over Wisconsin — and this is the Gophers’ best team in a decade.
Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave has had bouts with inconsistency in the passing game, so maybe the Gophers can take advantage there. If the secondary can cover up receiver Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin hasn’t shown a propensity to throw to other wide receivers. But Minnesota will still need to cover up tight end Jacob Pedersen and running back James White, who have emerged as viable pass-catching threats. Minnesota is tied for 68th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (233.8), and that’s more than Stave averages per outing (194.8). I would have said Wisconsin’s secondary could be exploited, but the Gophers’ passing offense has been no great shakes thus far.
MASON: Like the Badgers, Minnesota has established an identity as a run-first team. On that note, the Gophers’ passing game ranks dead last in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game (149.4). Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson has been better as of late — seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last four games — but Minnesota still doesn’t pose much of a threat through the air. That will be magnified if wide receiver Derrick Engel (knee) can’t play Saturday. The Badgers have proven to be one of the toughest teams in the conference to throw against. If Wisconsin builds an early lead and Minnesota finds itself needing a comeback, the Gophers would likely have to pick up yardage through the air. That hasn’t always been easy for this team, and it could come back to haunt them again on Saturday. 3. Which unsung player should opposing fans be on the lookout for?
TEMPLE: Tanner McEvoy was considered far from an unsung player when he entered fall camp in a competition to be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback. But nobody could have foreseen his transformation into a reliable safety. McEvoy has the body composition, speed and strength to excel at many positions, and he’s making the defensive staff look smart for sticking him in the back end. This season, he has recorded 22 tackles and notched the first interception of his career against BYU two weeks ago. He’s also added two pass deflections and a tackle for loss. McEvoy still considers himself a quarterback, but his willingness to do anything to see the field is admirable. It remains to be seen whether he’ll return to quarterback during the spring and compete with Joel Stave and Bart Houston for the starting spot. But the more he excels on defense, the tougher it will be for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to send him back over to offense.
MASON: Everyone talks about senior defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman, and for good reason. He’s 6-foot-6, 311 pounds, and an absolute monster on defense. Hageman will surely be taken in the upcoming NFL Draft, possibly even late in the first round. But there’s another Gophers defensive lineman who has given opposing quarterbacks far more trouble than Hageman. That would be redshirt sophomore Theiren Cockran, who weighs in at 6-foot-6, 238 pounds. After recording just one sack as a freshman last year, Cockran now leads the Gophers with 6.5 sacks, which is tied for third-most in the Big Ten. As Hageman continues to get double-teamed by opposing defenses, Minnesota’s other defensive linemen have had opportunities to make plays. Cockran is a prime example of that. On top of his team-high 6.5 sacks, he has 27 tackles and nine tackles for loss. Minnesota will need him to have a big game to help stop the Badgers’ rushing attack. And if Hageman receives more double-teams from Wisconsin’s offensive line, look for Cockran to perhaps have a shot at getting to Badgers quarterback Joel Stave and adding to his sack total.
4. What needs to happen for the team you cover to win?
TEMPLE: Run the ball. Run the ball. Run the ball. Wisconsin ranks sixth nationally in rushing offense (307.9 yards per game) and must be able to control the line of scrimmage early and often. It’s amazing that Wisconsin’s rushing totals have actually improved after losing one-time Heisman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball to the NFL. But that’s exactly what has happened. Melvin Gordon ranks No. 9 in rushing yards per game (130.6) and James White is No. 14 (115.6).
The Badgers are the only FBS team to boast two players with more than 1,000 rushing yards this season. Gordon’s 8.51 yards-per-carry for his career very well could break the all-time mark of 8.26 established by Army’s Glenn Davis — all the way back from 1943-46. White, meanwhile, has more rushing touchdowns than any other active FBS player. Minnesota has done a decent job of stopping the run this season and ranks 38th in the country in rushing defense. But Saturday will represent the Gophers’ toughest challenge all season. And if Wisconsin has early success, that will force Minnesota to stack the box and be more susceptible to the Badgers’ famed play-action passes down the field.
MASON: Minnesota needs to stop the run, which is easier said than done against Wisconsin’s two-headed rushing attack of Melvin Gordon and James White. The Badgers have shown they can run over just about any team in the country. The Gophers’ rushing defense has been very average this year, and it’s been particularly susceptible in the last three games as Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State all rushed for 189 yards or more. Minnesota has yet to face as potent of a running attack as it will on Saturday against Wisconsin. If the Gophers can at least limit the run to an extent and force the Badgers to make some plays through the air, Minnesota’s defense stands a chance to get the ball back for its offense.
5. Prediction time — who will claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe?
TEMPLE: I don’t see one area in which Minnesota has a clear-cut edge, and for that reason, I’m picking Wisconsin to win its 10th consecutive border battle. I know this is Minnesota’s best team since probably 2003, but quite frankly, I still believe the Badgers will roll. Wisconsin has one of the best defenses in the country and is on pace to shatter the school record for yards per game on offense (505.8 per game so far this season). Wisconsin covers that 16-point spread — barely — and wins 38-21.
MASON: As impressed as I’ve been with the Gophers to this point — who could have guessed they would be 8-2 leading up to this game? — I’m predicting that their four-game winning streak comes to an end Saturday. However, I do think it will be closer than the 16-point spread, a number that seems a bit high for an eight-win home team. In the end, though, Paul Bunyan’s Axe will once again remain with the Badgers for the 10th straight year. Minnesota will keep it close, but Wisconsin’s ground game will be too much as the Badgers win 35-24.